When our kids, Chris and Emma, were five and three years old, my father in law, who could most charitably described as a little eccentric, showed up our house one fall afternoon with a puppy on a leash. A friend of his had a dog who had had puppies, he said, and they were all going to be put to sleep if they couldn’t find homes for them. He wondered if the kids would like a puppy.
We were going to try out the puppy for a week to see how he blended into our family, to see if Jason and I could cope with a puppy on top of two small kids.
We had a five-year-old and a three-year-old. HOW DO YOU THINK THIS STORY ENDED?
We got Max nearly by accident; we didn’t even get to pick his name. He came pre-loaded with the most common name for a male dog in Newfoundland. We tried him out for a week to see how we could handle dog ownership, and I was never sure we actually DID handle it all that well. Any personality flaws Max ever had, I blamed not on him but on us. He was a good dog; the goodest of good dogs. Except that sometimes he was a bad dog, because the people who were supposed to be training him were also trying to train to small human children, and teaching them to share and not to bite people seemed more important than training a puppy not to jump up on visitors.
Max’s enthusiasm for greeting people, and knocking drinks out of their hands or taking sandwiches off their plates, meant that sometimes he had to stay in his kennel when we had visitors over. He could not have been a better dog; he could have been better trained, for which I entirely blame his human owners, who were so distracted with their own litter of young.
The three pups in our litter, Chris and Emma and Max, grew up together, taking long family rambles where Chris and Emma were carefully trained by Max to throw tennis balls repeatedly so that he could run after them and bring them back. At the cabin in summer, Max’s happiest place, we could throw tennis balls into the water and he would happily jump in and swim to retrieve them. Jason taught him to swim by throwing him off the end of the dock, at which point Max discovered he could dog-paddle. Then Max taught Jason to take him for rides in the canoe, by jumping into the canoe and waiting for someone to get in and paddle him around.
Of the four of us, Jason wanted a dog least. Jason is not a dog person, which is no doubt attributable to that time his uncle’s Doberman bit him ON THE EYE when he was 12. But he knew how much the kids and I wanted a dog, especially this dog. Over the years, Jason developed a growing affection for Max in spite of Max being a dog. Max, for his part, returned this affection with a white-hot devotion that never wavered. He loved Jason like an eighth-grade girl loves the captain of the high school football team, following his every move with devoted eyes, literally dogging his steps, basking in the slightest sign of affection. If Jason tried to cross the room and Max threw himself in front of his feet so that Jason said, “Get outta the way, you foolish old thing!” in accents of affectionate frustration, Max’s tail would wag and his eyes shine with joy. You could practically hear him thinking: “Master spoke to me!! Master loves me!!”
I told Emma when she was about fifteen, “Don’t settle for just any man in your life. Wait for someone who looks at you like the dog looks at your father.”
We were busy, while our kids and Max were all growing up. Sometimes I felt like were terrible dog owners, because he was home alone while were at school or work, though that never dimmed his joy at seeing any one of us come through the door. And sometimes we were too busy to take him for walks, and I would feel guilty if he didn’t get out for a walk.
Once I had a student, a young man who had dropped out of school multiple times and had been a drug addict and been in trouble with the law. I would see this boy walk his dog past my house every single day, and I would think, in the eyes of human society I’m a fine upstanding citizen, and this boy is a loser. But if our dogs compared notes, I’d be the loser, and this kid would be the finest person in St. John’s, because his dog never goes a day without a walk.
What Max’s walks sometimes lacked in frequency, they made up for in mileage. Apart from our family walks which focused largely on finding an off-leash place where we could throw the ball for him, or strolls with me and Jason around our centre-city neighbourhood, I would also take Max along on my long solitary rambles. When I decided in 2012 to walk the entire network of Grand Concourse trails around the city, Max was my constant companion. We walked together for hours and he never slowed down or got tired, until of course he did.
Last summer we took him to the vet because he was coughing a lot, and we found out he had a small, slow-growing tumour in his lungs. He was 13 then, already old for a dog of his size. The afternoon after the vet called with his X-ray results, I took Max up Signal Hill, down the Cuckold’s Cove trail and around by Quidi Vidi. We were out for two hours in the hot sun and he trotted along gamely beside me as he always had, stopping to drink water from the ponds we passed. A few weeks later I walked him around one of the big trail loops near our home, and about forty minutes into the walk he lay down on someone’s lawn and when I tried to urge him to go again, he looked up at me as if I were crazy. “You can’t be serious,” his big brown eyes said. “What do you think I am – a puppy?”
We made it home that night, slowly, and after that our long rambles turned to short walks around the neighbourhood. Even a week ago, when we could barely make it around the block, he still looked happy when he saw the leash. He was coughing more by then, and eating less, and I was driven crazy trying to find things to tempt his appetite. He was a dog who had always lived happily on dry dog food because we were those kind of dog owners – don’t be foolish over him, don’t make a fuss, give him the Purina Dog Chow and when he’s hungry enough he’ll eat it. That method worked well for fourteen years, and then in the last two months we progressed through dry dog food, to canned dog food, to fried-up ground beef and sausages and turkey bacon and whatever else we could get him to eat. I hard-boiled eggs and fed them to him from my fingers. The last thing I got him to eat was the chicken patty from a Wendy’s homestyle chicken sandwich.
And then the day came when I knew he was in pain and we couldn’t put it off any longer. We wanted to wait, because Jason, the person he adored most in the world, was away for three weeks on business. Jason is also the person I adore most in the world, as it happens, and it seemed like it would be good for both me and Max to have Jason with us on this last journey together. But we couldn’t wait till Jason came home – it would have been cruel. Our two grown-up pups, Chris and Emma, both said their goodbyes to Max at home. Neither of them could bear the thought of being with him at the end, and I didn’t blame them for that. At seventeen or nineteen, I probably couldn’t have handled that hard farewell either. Chris, who has moved out, dropped over the other night and I told him to be sure to say a good goodbye to his dog because the end was coming soon. Emma was home with me on the afternoon before I took Max to the vet. We sat together and petted him and cried.
My best friend Sherry, who is also a dog owner and dog lover and has been down this road herself, came with me and Max to the vet’s office. It’s the kindest thing a friend has ever done for me: when I texted her in the morning and said I would have to take Max to be put to sleep and I hated to do it alone, she offered at once. She also baked me a lasagna. I pointed out that you don’t really need to make casseroles for pet deaths, because it’s not like Max would have cooked supper for me if he’d been alive. She said, “At least you don’t need to worry about what to make for supper tonight.”
Sherry came into the office with me and we both cried like babies while I petted and soothed Max as the vet gave him the final injection. We watched and stroked his fur as his body, so rarely still for most of his long, lively life, grew quiet. We hugged each other and cried and cried. As we bawled our way back out through the waiting room a woman touched our hands and said, “I’m so sorry. I’ve been there, with my dog.” Everyone else in the waiting room, especially the young couples with puppies, looked at us with eyes as big and sad as their dogs’ eyes. If they hadn’t been through it yet, they knew they would someday. It’s the only bad day in owning a dog.
I went home and told Emma how it had gone. We ate Sherry’s lasagna. I texted Chris and Jason. I phoned my dad. I told them all that it was over and that it had been peaceful. I moved Max’s kennel and dish from the back porch outside onto the deck because I couldn’t stand to look at them. Then I couldn’t stand to look at the empty space where they’d been.
I followed all the local animal shelters on Facebook to see if they had any dogs to adopt, not because I could ever replace Max but because I don’t think I can live without having a dog. Jason, who still thinks he is not a dog person, has accepted this fact, I think.
I love it that both on Facebook and in real life, every person I know who has a pet understands that this is a real loss. They offer sympathy and empathy and hugs and maybe even lasagna, because this grief is not the same as the grief you feel for a person, but it is real and it hurts. Max came into our lives by accident and I cannot imagine the last fourteen years having been lived without him. He is gone, and he is with us forever.